Who will be left standing when the Big Dance gets to the Big Apple?
The 64-team NCAA tournament opens Thursday in Providence, Orlando, Dallas and Albuquerque. It concludes April Fool's Day at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., across the Hudson River from the Manhattan skyline, and at the end, look for the usual suspects to be left standing.
Enjoy the presence of the little guys until the first round is concluded Friday, but while you're filling out your pool -- for entertainment purposes only, of course -- keep in mind that four of the last five NCAA basketball champions were No. 1 seeds. The other was Duke, a No. 2 when it beat Nevada-Las Vegas in the 1991 final.
Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut and Purdue, a combined 114-10, were anointed as the No. 1 seeds by the NCAA Selection Committee yesterday. Kentucky and Purdue are coming off losses and Connecticut needed a game-ending 12-point run to escape with the Big East title, while Massachusetts' motto of Refuse to Lose held up all but once in the regular season.
The nine-man committee wanted to make Kansas No. 1 in the West, but the Jayhawks lost in the Big Eight Conference final to Iowa State yesterday. Committee chairman Bob Frederick, who just happens to be the athletic director at Kansas, excused himself from the debate in a Kansas City hotel suite, and 50 minutes later Purdue was the last No. 1.
There was a similar upset in the Southeastern Conference final, where Kentucky lost to Mississippi State. It wasn't enough to deny the Wildcats a No. 1, but it happened too late to move the Bulldogs up from a No. 5 seed in the Southeast.
"We looked like we were in pretty good shape, but suddenly we were rethinking a lot of things," Frederick said. "We tried to adjust slightly Mississippi State's seed. To be frank, the lateness of the hour made it difficult. We couldn't make that adjustment without almost entirely unraveling the bracket and having to start a new one."
The committee didn't give the Atlantic Coast Conference a No. 1 seed, but it is the only conference to put six schools in the 64-team field. The Big East and Big Ten got five apiece, but they're howling about the absence of Providence and Minnesota, respectively. Conference USA, the first-year super-conference, was miffed by the omission of Tulane.
Also missing the cut were Oklahoma State, which went to the Final Four last year; Davidson, which went 25-4; and Fresno State and coach Jerry Tarkanian, who has been battling the NCAA's enforcement branch for decades.
Arkansas and California, No. 12 seeds, were the last of the 34 at-large selections. The last of the 30 automatic bids went to San Jose State, which started 4-15 but won the Big West Conference tournament yesterday. The Spartans are a No. 16 seed, along with Central Florida, Colgate and Western Carolina.
There were some bizarre travel assignments. Clemson and Stanford are both No. 9 seeds, and both will criss-cross the country, the Tigers to Albuquerque and the Cardinal to Providence.
The committee did set up some intriguing second-round possibilities.
The hottest ticket is for the Southeast Region in Orlando, Fla., next Sunday. Cincinnati's second-round assignment could be fellow defensive bruiser Temple, which had a seven-game win streak stopped by Massachusetts in the Atlantic 10 final. The other game there could match Indiana and Georgia Tech, the tournament's tightest ship against one of its loosest.
In the Midwest, a Villanova-Louisville game Sunday would be a suspension special, as Kerry Kittles and Samaki Walker missed games because of NCAA violations.
There's also the possibility of Connecticut-Duke in the Southeast and Kentucky-Virginia Tech in the Midwest, where Rick Pitino can admire a gunner he'd like to have, Ace Custis.
The tournament will be the last for Pete Carril and the Southwest Conference.
Carril, who was Yoda before the Star Wars saga, announced his retirement after Princeton got him his 11th Ivy League title in 29 years Saturday night. He hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1983, but the Tigers' musty style scared Georgetown, Arkansas, Villanova and Syracuse in successive tournaments from 1989-92.
Defending champion UCLA, young and banged up, had better watch the backdoor against the Tigers Thursday in Indianapolis.
The SWC, which will disband in June, has never won an NCAA title, and it never will unless Texas Tech becomes the first No. 3 to take it all since Michigan in 1989.
The Red Raiders come in as the hottest team in the tournament, thanks to Mississippi State's upset of top-ranked Kentucky yesterday.
Pitino sounded as if he didn't want to be saddled with a 28-game win streak, anyway.
"As great as people make us out to be, we couldn't have made a great run in the tournament unless we lost tonight because things have come too easy," Pitino said. "The loss will help us. It shows us we're not invincible."
On April Fool's Day, one last team will be.
A look at the conferences with the most teams receiving bids to the NCAA tournament:
Conference .. .. .. .. .. No.
Atlantic Coast . .. .. .. 6
Big East .... .. .. .. .. 5
Big Ten .. .. .. .. .. .. 5
Atlantic 10 . .. .. .. .. 4
Big Eight ... .. .. .. .. 4
Conference USA . .. .. .. 4
Pacific-10 .. .. .. .. .. 4
Southeastern ... .. .. .. 4
Pub Date: 3/11/96